President Bush's Inaugural Address had much to commend it—and I nearly missed it. Last fall, when I made travel arrangements for that weekend, I forgot that Jan. 20 would be Inauguration Day. So that Saturday I faced an 11 o'clock hotel checkout time and a noon inaugural ceremony.
Fortunately a sympathetic desk clerk granted a two-hour extension, so I propped up some pillows and clicked on the remote.
The president said he was "honored and humbled" to stand there. There was no triumphalism in his tone, no boasting that this country is the biggest and the best at whatever it does. Instead he said that we had gone into the world "to protect but not possess, to defend but not to conquer."
He didn't imply that U.S. citizens are always right or perfect, but called us "flawed and fallible people."
And he affirmed "a new commitment to live out our nation's promise through civility, courage, compassion and character," values that sorely need lifting up.
I did wonder, though, when he declared, "The grandest of these ideals is an unfolding American promise that everyone belongs, that everyone deserves a chance, that no insignificant person was ever born," whether he would include those citizens born gay or lesbian.
And when he said, "Many of our citizens doubt the promise, even the justice, of our own country," I wondered if he thought about all the African Americans in Florida who had testified about the obstacles confronting them when they tried to vote last Nov. 7.
But I really snapped to attention when I heard him say, "Church and charity, synagogue and mosque lend our communities their humanity, and they will have an honored place in our plans and in our laws." As innocuous and well-meaning as these words may sound, I suspect they signal an attack on the wall of separation between church and state.
The United States was not founded as a religious nation. The Preamble of the U.S. Constitution contains no theological premise. The words "Under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance and the U.S. motto, "In God We Trust," were adopted by Congress during the anti-Communist fervor of the 1950s (1954 and 1956 respectively). And the First Amendment clearly states, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."
Already President Bush has created an Office of Faith-Based Programs, which reportedly will direct government money to religious groups to operate social service programs, even if their real goal is to win converts. And the Toronto Globe and Mail has reported that Sen. Jesse Helms (R- NC) stated in January that foreign aid should be placed under the care of religious organizations.
Our forebears built that wall of separation between church and state to permit U.S. citizens to worship the god of their choice, not a god foisted on them by government. We can support Bush's goal of uniting all Americans, but not by making us all of one common religious persuasion.
The Rev. W. Evan Golder is editor of the national edition of United Church News.